Cartagena is popular coastal city in Colombia with a growing number of foreigners living in the city. But there are downsides to living in Cartagena. So, we look at 11 Cartagena downsides for expats living in Cartagena.

We previously looked at downsides to living in Medellín and downsides to living in Bogotá. Also, we looked at downsides to living in Cali and the overall downsides to living in Colombia. And several Medellin Guru readers asked for us to also look at the downsides of living in Cartagena.

In addition, we previously compared Medellín vs Cartagena in 19 categories to see which is the better city to live in for expats. And in that comparison the Medellín won if the categories were equally weighted.

I have seen some posts on the Internet that looked at the pros and cons of Cartagena. But these all tend to miss some of the downsides of living in Cartagena.

The biggest benefits to living in Cartagena include the coastal beach life, nice selection of restaurants, warmer climate, and less traffic and less pollution than is found some of the larger cities in Colombia.

But there are also several downsides to living in Cartagena. I am originally from the U.S. and have lived in Colombia over eight years and have spent several months in Cartagena during over 12 trips to the city. So, the following list of downsides to living in Cartagena is an expat’s perspective based on my experiences in the city and in Colombia.

Furthermore, not all these Cartagena downsides apply to everyone. Some of these downsides can be overcome or avoided.  And the following list of Cartagena downsides from a foreigner perspective is in no particular order.

Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean Coast

Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

1. Climate and Weather – Cartagena Downsides

Cartagena is a coastal city in Colombia. And the temperature during the year averages a relatively hot 82 °F (27.8 °C). The daily average high temperature in Cartagena ranges from 87.1 to 89.2 °F (30.6 to 31.8 °C). And the daily average low temperature ranges from 75.0 to 78.3 °F (23.9 to 25.7 °C).

The all-time record high in Cartagena was 104 °F (40.0 °C). Cartagena is a beach city on the Caribbean and it can get quite hot on some days. But Cartagena does not really have a hurricane risk.

Also, it is humid in Cartagena with an average annual humidity of 81 percent. To me, the climate of Cartagena with its unrelenting heat and humidity is the biggest downside of living in Cartagena. In Cartagena it gets hot enough that you will definitely need air-conditioning.

While some expats may prefer the warmer climate of Cartagena, most expats I have talked to prefer a cooler eternal spring climate. Colombia has three cities with eternal spring climates: Medellín, Pereira and Bucaramanga, which all have cooler climates than in Cartagena.

2. Cost of Living is High Compared to Other Cities in Colombia – Cartagena Downsides

In general, Cartagena is generally considered to be one of the most expensive cities to live in out of the cities in Colombia. Only Bogotá can have a higher cost of living.

If you compare Cartagena with other cities in Colombia using the  Expatistan or or Numbeo cost of living websites, these sites will typically show Cartagena as the more expensive city to live.

Apartment properties I have seen in Cartagena in estrato 5 or 6 neighborhoods tend to rent for or sell for at least 30-40 percent higher prices than similar properties in Medellín. And I have seen some properties in Cartagena for sale with even higher prices that are about double the prices in Medellín.

Electricity costs in Cartagena will normally be 80-100 percent higher due to the need for air-conditioning. Costs of other things like restaurants, drugstore items and groceries tend to be between 6 to 20 percent higher in Cartagena when compared to Medellín.

3. Public Transport and Unmetered Taxis Cartagena Downsides

There is no metro system or elongated bus system in Cartagena. So, compared to several other cities in Colombia, Cartagena has an inferior public transportation system.

In Cartagena there are some inexpensive bus routes and inexpensive taxis. But the taxis in Cartagena do not have taximeters. So, be careful of inflated taxi fares in Cartagena. Other cities in Colombia like Medellín and Bogotá have metered taxis.

A common downside in Cartagena is that some taxi drivers in Cartagena will take advantage and charge a higher “gringo” fare for foreign tourists.

There is an official fare list in Cartagena that taxi drivers are supposed to have in their taxis. But most conveniently don’t have this official list.  To make sure you are not surprised at the fare at the destination when in Cartagena, always make sure to ask the fare to the destination before getting in a taxi.

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

Aedes aegypti mosquito, photo by CDC

4. Mosquitos and Other Bugs – Cartagena Downsides

Mosquitos and other types of bugs can be a major problem in Cartagena and are a downside of living in the city.

Reportedly the Aedes aegypi mosquitos that spread the Zika virus infection are fairly prevalent in Cartagena. Most notably, the Aedes aegypi mosquitos also spread the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever. So, make sure to take precautions in Cartagena and use insect repellents.

Last year I met an expat in Medellín that had traveled to Cartagena and got sick with Zika. This demonstrates that it’s important to take precautions in Cartagena. And the grocery stores and drug stores in Cartagena all sell insect repellents.

5. Too Many Touts – Cartagena Downsides

It seems at times in Cartagena that you can’t walk for more than a block without being offered something for sale – water, food, souvenirs, a massage and much more.

The Bocagrande beaches in particular in Cartagena seem to have these touts everywhere. You will be bothered as a foreigner probably every 10 minutes by someone trying to sell something while sitting on the beach. Also, touts are common in the old walled city in Cartagena.

Cartagena’s main industry is tourism. So, you can’t really blame these people trying to make it a living. But if you live there you will have to get used to this never-ending bombardment. So, get used to saying “No, gracias” in Cartagena.

6. Spanish is Required

I have met a few foreigners that have been living in Cartagena for several years that don’t speak much Spanish. But most Colombians in Cartagena (and the rest of the country) generally don’t speak much English. So, to be independent you will need to speak some Spanish.

It is difficult to get by living in Cartagena without speaking some Spanish. Only a few of the locals in Cartagena speak English. And most of the people that you will interact with on a typical day, such as store clerks, taxi drivers and waiters will tend to speak little to no English.

But in my experience, many of the executives at large companies and staff in hotels and in some restaurants in Cartagena speak English.

In addition, Education First ranks the English proficiency in Colombia as low at 48.90 on a 100-point scale.

(Note this downside is not unique to Cartagena, it’s a Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia)

Colombia income taxes and IVA taxes

Colombia income taxes and IVA taxes

7. Need to File Taxes Twice and High IVA Tax

If you are an expat from the U.S. living in Cartagena, Colombia, you likely will have to file taxes in both the U.S. and Colombia.

You are considered a tax resident in Colombia if you stay in the country for more than 183 total days during a year, whether this time is continuous or not. In addition, Colombia taxes the worldwide income of tax residents.

Just because you have to file taxes in Colombia doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay income taxes. Colombia has several deductions plus you can subtract some income taxes paid in another country from income taxes due in Colombia. We previously looked at filing income taxes in Colombia.

Colombia also has a 19 percent IVA tax (a value added tax – VAT) on many products, which makes buying many things more expensive. The IVA tax used to be 16 percent but was increased to 19 percent in February 2017. But some grocery items such as milk, eggs and fruits and several other items are exempt from the IVA tax in Colombia.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia)

8. Cars are Expensive

Cars can be quite expensive in Cartagena due to import duties in Colombia of up to 35 percent. Reportedly over 60 percent of the vehicles sold in Colombia are imported. So, many models of cars sold in Cartagena and other cities in Colombia can be more expensive than in the U.S.

Colombia has a free trade agreement with the U.S. that went into effect in 2012. The agreement is phasing out the import duty for vehicles over a 10-year period but there are still import duties.

In addition, Colombia has free trade agreements with several other countries. These other agreements are also phasing out import duties for automobiles. Over time this will help reduce the costs for imported vehicles sold in Colombia.

When living in Cartagena, you should expect to pay more for a car than in the U.S. Also, there are also ongoing costs with owning a car including insurance, maintenance, taxes and gasoline.

But it is possible to live in Cartagena without a car. Bogotá has public buses, which are inexpensive. In addition, Cartagena has relatively inexpensive taxis.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia)

9. Crime is a Major Concern – Cartagena Downsides

Crime and safety are major concerns of expats considering moving to Cartagena and expats living in the city.

There are parts of Cartagena where you shouldn’t go, particularly after dark, and you’ll need to learn these. Like any big city some neighborhoods in Cartagena are not really safe at night.

In a survey of 12,548 Colombians in 2015, in terms of feeling safe in their city (slide 40), Cartagena was ranked the second worst out of all the cities surveyed. Only 15 percent of respondents in Cartagena felt safe in their city. This compares to 45 percent feeling safe in their city in Medellín.

In Cartagena, the touristy El Centro, known as the Walled City, is generally considered one of the safest areas, with virtually no homicides and little crime. In addition, the other tourist areas in the city like the beach neighborhoods of Bocagrande and El Laguito are considered relatively safe areas.

All of the tourist areas and best residential areas in Cartagena are located in Unidad Comunera Urbana 1 and are generally considered safe but take precautions at night by taking taxis. The 14 other unidades comuneras in Cartganea are generally considered to be much less safe, where most tourists and expats rarely go.

USD to COP 10-year exchange rate history, source XE.com

USD to COP 10-year exchange rate history, source XE.com

10. Exchange Rate is Volatile

When living in Cartagena in Colombia pretty much all of your costs will be in the local currency – Colombian pesos (COP).

The exchange rate over the past three years has been very beneficial if you have U.S. dollars (USD) or another Western currency. But the exchange rate has fluctuated dramatically over the years. So, it hasn’t always been like now.

Over the past 10 years the exchange rate has ranged from 1,745 to 3,438 pesos to the USD. So, your cost of living in Cartagena in terms of USD will fluctuate. Over the past three years the exchange rate has ranged from 2,711 to 3,438 pesos to the USD. This is a much higher exchange rate range than the prior seven years.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia)

11. Customer Service

You will need patience and tolerance living in Cartagena or other cities in Colombia. If someone says they will be there in 30 minutes it may be in two hours, tomorrow may mean sometime later in the week and so on.

Also, don’t expect someone to be on time for a date. It’s a pleasant surprise when they are. Colombians don’t come from a service-oriented culture. So, customer service can at times be very slow.

North Americans and Western Europeans used to their more well-oiled realities will run up against their share of disorganization, poor service, long lines and bureaucracy in Cartagena and Colombia, which can range from mildly frustrating to infuriating.

However, this is no different than many other countries in Latin America. I have experienced similar issues in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and several other countries in Latin America.

(Note this is another Colombia downside that is also a downside in other cities in Colombia)

View of Cartagena from Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

View of Cartagena from Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

The Bottom Line: Cartagena Downsides – the Downsides of Living in Cartagena as an Expat

The bottom line is that no city is perfect and every city has downsides. Also, some of the above Cartagena downsides listed above really apply to any city in Colombia.

For example, five of the downsides listed above (the exchange rate, customer service, taxes, need for Spanish and expensive cars) can apply to any city in Colombia.

Also, before deciding to live in a city like Cartagena it is important to understand all the downsides when comparing to other cities in Colombia or in other countries. Some publications tend to praise Cartagena as a place to live but they don’t really discuss all the downsides.

So, hopefully the above article will help communicate several of the downsides of living in Cartagena from an expat’s perspective.

To each his own. Some expats prefer living in Cartagena. To me, Cartagena is one of my favorite cities in Colombia and I enjoy visiting the city. There are so many things to do in Cartagena with all the water and beach activities and history. But I prefer living in Medellín with its eternal spring climate and lower cost of living.

In addition, we previously looked 11 downsides to living in Medellín and 12 downsides to living in Bogotá. Also, we looked at 8 downsides of living in El Poblado, the most popular neighborhood for expats in Medellín.

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